Inside Psychopomp, a Bristol gin bar
To the left of a hidden bar inside The Old Bookshop, there’s a wall covered in handwriting. Emilio Di Salvo, bartender at Psychopomp Gin Distillery’s new cocktail bar gives his patrons pens to decorate the tiles as they wish.
We ask him the story behind “In Bed With The Queen!”- one of the various intriguing phrases adorning the brickwork. The answer captures the essence of what makes this new bar so unique in Bristol’s thriving speakeasy scene. It’s the name of one of his Sunday Brunch cocktails- Emilio’s twist on a Breakfast Martini. It was constructed in tandem with the head chef, who made a special pink grapefruit marmalade just for the drink. There is a preoccupation bordering on obsession with going the extra mile, and asking for help from unusual sources, to make the drinks here stand out from the crowd.
You’ve worked in a number of cocktail bars both in Bristol and further afield before this- how did you end up here?
E: I started at Milky (Milk Thistle) when I was 20, then went to Red Light for 2 years, then on to The Little Red Door in Paris. The whole time in Bristol though, I knew Danny, who started Psychopomp with Liam. They rang me up and told me they liked the way I do things. They said, “we’ve got this thing we want to set up in The Old Bookshop, and the only way we’re going to do it is if you run it- otherwise we won’t do it.” I always wanted to work with Danny- he’s got a great brain for gin and making a business work, he has been running bars for years- and the other guy who makes Psychopomp is a doctor.
Like an alchemist of gin?
E: Yeah, he’s got the beard for it as well.
You created a new menu that’s started this week- what was the thinking behind it?
E: We wanted it to feel fun- I haven’t put every ingredient next to every drink- it’s more like an idea. The way it’s laid out like a dictionary is supposed to fit with the context of the building we’re in (The Old Bookshop). I wanted to do something a bit different to other cocktail joints in Bristol- I want it to feel like a neighbourhood bar. I wanted people to be able to walk into this bar and order a Ramos Gin Fizz because thats what I always wanted to do’ – if you ask a bartender for a Ramos normally his heart will sink, because traditionally you have to shake it until all the ice has dissolved. There are some incredible bars that will make it without hesitation though- Satan’s Whiskers in London is a great example.
How long does that take?
E: About 11 minutes- I’m convinced it’s going to become the thing for a group of 20 lads to order at the bar, but we’ll see.
The new Jagerbomb.
E: [Laughs] Exactly!
Is it just you who runs this? So if you’re not here… this place isn’t open?
E: Umm… no! Haha- there is one other girl, Steff, who is between here and the distillery at the moment. She used to be an actor and she wrote a play on gin, which I think is what got her the job- she loved gin so much that she’s stopped acting to come and make gin!
I worked with bartenders for 5 years but Steff is essentially an awesome lady who loves gin. She’s an incredible waitress and she’s worked in cocktail bars in London, but not really behind the bar- so she’s my link to everyone on the other side. She’s really great with people.
When we work together I’ll ask her to smell a gin, and she’s really good at placing herself into a nostalgic mood and coming up with an idea then I figure out a way to get close. So, for example we were trying to come up with a winter menu drink, and I didn’t want to make something that was really obvious with spices and things like that, so she said:
“Caramel from the inside of a boozy chocolate my nan gave me”
That gave me figs, which have a caramel flavour to them.
“Smoke from the cigars my dad has”
That led me to a smoked fig sour, and that became the Wanton Hussy that’s on the menu now. So she conceives the drink, and I put it together.
One of the other bodies propping up the bar is a magician who periodically unnerves nearby customers by spontaneously conjuring fireballs out of thin air. The conversation turn to a discussion of the different chemicals that can be used to produce a variety of colourful flames, and the difficulty of acquiring some of the rarer substances.
E: Well seeing as you’re already on a blacklist, can you get me any Quinine Sulphate?
After a confident declaration by the pyromancer that “It can be obtained” we ask Emilio what he’s planning on using it for.
E: I want to try and make my own tonic water- eventually I would like to not serve my Gin & Tonics like this- I would like to serve them in frozen champagne flutes, and use my own tonic, carbonate it myself- It would mean I could have control over quantities and could adapt it to the various gins I’ve got back here. I’m also looking to make some clarified lime juice which appears completely clear but still holds its taste. I’ve been reading lots of Dave Arnold (author of Liquid Intelligence) so I’m playing around with some of his techniques.
What is it about making cocktails that you enjoy so much? How did you get into mixing drinks?
E: Something about building a drink and then tasting the flavours at the end, and getting it right… had a kind of pull to it? I never liked spirits when I was younger- I was the classic Bristol kid drinking cider in the park, and I don’t really know when it happened, but maybe it was when I was working at Picollino’s and I’d dart over to Harvey Nicks on my break with a cocktail book and point at something and ask them “Can you make this?” and they’d make it for me and then I’d go back to work half-cut.
It was epic though, because it was around the time that Mad Men came out- Old Fashioned’s became a known thing to the general public. I had long hair for years but shaved it off and suddenly become very… smooth- a cigarette holder just appeared in my hand and I realised Don Draper had started living in my head, or at least a nerdy english version.
What’s exciting about working here specifically?
E: I’m letting people find this place on their own- for me this is downtime- I’ve worked in other bars but because this place is a little quieter and a little smaller what I like about it is it means I can spend more time on each drink and make sure everything’s perfect.
There’s a permanent chef here called Alex Bluett, and he’s really know his stuff, seriously come and eat his food – rather than working with bartenders I’m much more interested in working with chefs. And anyone else actually- photographers, musicians- if they build a drink with me and somehow incorporate music into the drink then we can get people looking from different angles- it makes it much more interesting.
So what do you have behind the bar right now?
E: Right now I’ve got 4 spirits- 3 of them are gin, so we’ve got one aged, one seasonal, and one classic- all Psychopomp- the whole idea is that we wanted to fund ourselves- we never wanted to order in another brand- if we can make it ourselves then we will. There’s also an aquavits we have made.
If there’s one drink you’d want to recommend to anyone thinking of coming here, what would it be?
I’ve got to say one of my favourites really… probably the Bee’s Knees. Right now I’m trying to make the best Bee’s Knees in the world. Its such a simple drink but the ingredients can vary so much. specific honey and each lemon is different. I would like to try and make a gin specifically for it. Who knows?
Psychopomp at The Old Bookshop in Bedminster is open from 6pm Wednesday to Saturday, and from 12:30 til 8pm on Sundays.
The Old Bookshop address:
65 North Street